Sourcing History: “Evolution of Religion”

Google recently launched its Google Books Ngram Viewer, which promises to be a fantastic research tool.  Although most of the reviews have focused on word or phrase searches and trending, the tool has a barely noted feature which is invaluable.  Here are the basics provided by the WSJ:

[S]cientists at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Google and the Encyclopedia Britannica unveiled a database of two billion words and phrases drawn from 5.2 million books in Google’s digital library published during the past 200 years. With this tool, researchers can measure trends through the language authors used and the names of people they mentioned.

If this was the extent of the tool, the results would be interesting but not useful.  Here is what I got when searching for the phrase “evolution of religion”:

But underneath this nifty graph (which you can make larger by clicking on it), there is a series of year categories that looks like this:

Search in Google Books:   1800 – 1894     1895 – 1909     1910 – 1914     1915 – 1980     1981 – 2000      evolution of religion

If you click one of these date categories, the books and articles in which this phrase appears are not only listed by title/date/author, but you can also search each individual book or article that appears in the list.  Click “Full View” and it will take you directly to the source and pages where the phrase is used.  The phrase for which you are searching will be conveniently highlighted, thus allowing for quick scrolling and analysis.

As should be apparent, this is an incredible resource for those who wish to trace the history of ideas.  Using this tool, we can all be “sourcerers” of sorts.

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